Herniated Discs

Herniated Discs and Back Pain

Man with backache. Credit: Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

A herniated disc is a common source of back pain, often called a slipped disk or a ruptured disk. Spinal intervertebral discs are small, round cushions between the vertebrae of the spinal column. They have tough, fibrous tissue on the outside and a watery, gelatinous material inside. The purpose of these discs is to cushion each vertebrae during movement. A herniated disc is a disc that has bulged or ruptured from its proper place.

It may press on nearby nerves and cause severe back pain.

What are the Causes of a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disk occurs when the disc is damaged by a number of situations. Some of the most common causes of a disc injury are:

  • A fall or accident
  • Repeated straining of your back
  • A sudden strain on the back from lifting or twisting violently
  • Degeneration of the disc from aging
  • Spontaneous herniation can occur without any specific injury

When the disc is damaged, the soft rubbery center of the disc squeezes out through a weak point in the fibrous outer layer, causing a bulge that often presses on nearby nerves.

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

Symptoms may begin suddenly or gradually. Sudden aching in the back or neck or being unable to straighten without extreme pain are signs of herniated disc problems. Numbness, tingling, or weakness in one or both arms is another sign of herniated discs.

Other common symptoms of a herniated disc include:

  • Pain that Radiates to the Legs: Pain that travels to the legs or feet may feel like a shooting pain or electric shock. This type of pain may be from a disc pressing against the nerve.
  • Numbness or Tingling: Any sensation of numbness, tingling or the feeling of a part of the body 'falling asleep' can indicate a disc problem. This sensation may occur in the legs or areas surrounding the spine.
  • Muscle Weakness: If the nerve is involved, it may interfere with muscle contractions and reflexes.
  • Bladder Problems: Problems with bladder or bowel function is a serious symptom of a herniated disc that should be treated and evaluated immediately.

All of these symptoms may be caused by a herniated disc pressing against the spinal nerves.

Diagnosis of a Herniated Disc

A doctor can often diagnose a herniated disc by a physical examination that tests sensation, muscle strength, and reflexes. The following diagnostic tests are often necessary to diagnose a herniated disk:

Treatment of a Herniated Disc

Conservative treatment may relieve most cases of herniated disc pain and allow the body to heal the disc over time. Early treatment may include:

  • Rest. By resting the back there is time for the body to reabsorb the herniated part of the disk and heal.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Hot or cold packs, depending on your doctor's recommendation
  • Traction, (putting bones or muscles under tension to keep them from moving or to relieve pressure on them)
  • Massage
  • Physical therapy
  • Steroid injections into the space near the herniated disk to control pain and inflammation.

    As the pain lessens, you will most likely begin physical therapy to strengthen your back muscles and joints. Sometimes disc problems require surgery.

    The acute pain from a herniated disc should go away within a few weeks, but some pain may remain for a few months. Backaches may be common in those with a history of disk problems, therefore continual back strengthening and stretching exercises are recommended throughout life. Good biomechanics are also essential to protect the spine when lifting exercising.

    How Can You Prevent a Herniated Disc?

    Prevention includes:

    • Using good posture and proper lifting techniques
    • Avoid standing in one place for long periods of time
    • Stretch often when sitting for long periods of time
    • Use chairs with good back support
    • Sleep on a firm mattress
    • Sleep on your side not your stomach
    • Stop and rest often while on long road trips

    Avoid returning too quickly to activity or exercise or you may risk aggravating your injury, which could lead to permanent damage.

    Risk of a herniated disks is decreased by maintain good core strength and strong, flexible muscles.

    Return to Injury Index


    Herniated Disk, OrthoInfo, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, July, 2007.

    Herniated Disk, American Academy of Family Physicians, 03/2014.

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